Australia and Indonesia have worked hard over the past decade to build a strong bilateral relationship, seen as valuable by Indonesia and as critically important by Australia. That relationship is now in tatters.
The Australian government has been at pains to explain to Indonesia that recent naval incursions into Indonesian territorial waters, intended to stop asylum seeker boats, were unintentional. From Indonesia’s perspective, it matters little whether the incursions were intentional or just the logical if unintended consequence of a much disliked Australian government policy.
Similarly, Australia’s policy of giving asylum seekers lifeboats to return to Indonesia adds a further layer of complication to Australian policy. From Indonesia’s perspective, the flow of asylum seekers is not official Indonesian policy, but the Australian navy putting asylum seekers bound for Australia in Australian lifeboats bond for Indonesia is official Australian policy.
This policy is seen by Indonesia as diplomatically clumsy as it is objectionable. Indonesia has said, repeatedly, that it wants Australia to abandon its policy of turning back asylum seeker boats. Putting asylum seekers in lifeboats only heightens those objections.
Indonesia has now launched its own naval patrols, not to stop asylum seekers leaving Indonesia but to stop Australian naval incursions. Australian naval vessels will no doubt be extra cautious about future transgressions into Indonesian territorial waters and, beyond that, there are a series of warnings to go through before confrontation.
At best, however, the bilateral relationship is continuing to deteriorate. At worst, mistakes can happen.
The Australian navy may continue to turn (or tow) asylum seeker boats back to near Indonesian territorial waters. But it will not be able to compel asylum seeker boats to remain within them.
When the monsoonal season ends and the "sailing season" resumes, around April, the flow of asylum seeker boats is again likely to increase. The problem faced by the Australian Navy will, therefore, become more rather than less complicated.
The first question is, then, whether Australia’s defence approach to an immigration issue is sustainable. The second and larger question is whether Australia can continue to alienate, seeming indefinitely, its most important strategic relationship.
If Australia is serious about finding a long-term solution to the asylum seeker issue, it needs to work closely with Indonesia and other regional neighbors to put in place agreed and workable policies. Such policies go beyond the simple, if failed, "policing"" that existed until late last year.
Indonesia, probably Malaysia and possibly Thailand and Singapore need to have in place stricter immigration policies, to screen "onward bound" travellers. There also needs to be regional co-operation around the quicker and internationally recognised processing of those asylum seekers who do end up in the region.
Such a policy would limit the flow of asylum seekers, would meet Australia’s international obligations and would not alienate critically important relationships. However, this would require the type of trust and co-operation that Australia’s existing approach to asylum seekers has effectively ended.
The Australian government’s approach to asylum seekers worked well as a pre-election slogan, but lacked a properly developed plan. As a result, Australia has dug itself into a policy hole.
If Australia now wishes to extricate itself from this situation it must start by following the first rule of holes: when you are in one, stop digging.